My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"Why should a real man stay home when he could be raping a virgin continent?"
Until about the middle of Kurt Vonnegut's Bluebeard (1987) I was finding it a worthwhile yet unremarkable read. And then, about page 170 of the paperback edition, either the author finds his stride, or - more likely - I finally begin to "get" the book. In the powerful and memorable second half of the novel Vonnegut's trademark pessimism explodes from the pages and the despicable nature of the human species is again exposed via bitterly sarcastic prose.
The novel is a fictional autobiography of Rabo Karabekian, an American painter of Armenian origin, one of the leading artists of the Abstract Expressionist school that includes such artists as Jason Pollock and Mark Rothko (Vonnegut is skillful in mixing fictional and real characters). The story of Rabo's youth and middle age is interspersed with an account of the current (mid-1980s) events, when he is 71 years old; the two threads elegantly connect toward the end. There is even a clever mystery in the novel: we do not know - although we can suspect - what object is hidden in a securely locked potato barn; the secret is revealed in a stunning finale.
Vonnegut is crystal clear about which of the two halves of the human race is the more wretched. Men are a hopelessly flawed gender as they are good mainly for participating in violence:
"[she] was surely way ahead of her time, too, in believing that men were not only useless and idiotic, but downright dangerous. That idea wouldn't catch on big in her native country until the last three years of the Vietnam War."The novel is more effectively feminist than any manifesto of feminist activism. It helps that Vonnegut offers vivid, compelling portrayals of two women: Marilee, in the past, and the widow Berman, in the present. I feel as if I have known both of them!
The art of painting is one of the main topics; for instance, we learn that Abstract Expressionists want their art to be about absolutely nothing but itself and they refuse to participate in anything that has any ideological bent. Much discussion is about the inferiority of representational art and the reason for that is quite clearly explained. In Rabo's words such art is "just too [...] easy," (I bowdlerized the quote removing a particularly fitting gerund serving as an adverb) thus not worthwhile practicing. Realist painters are called "taxidermists who mount and varnish great moments in time." How much of the artist is in their art is another interesting topic. And of course the eternal discussion subject:
"'How can you tell a good painting from a bad one?' he said. [...] 'All you have to do [...] is look at a million paintings, and then you can never be mistaken.'"There is a great scene of lovemaking between Rabo and Marilee, one of the best I have read, as it is funny, sarcastic (duh!) and totally non-erotic. It leads to a cute concept of "non-epiphany" and to showing how much smarter women are about sex than men. The novel is very funny in the bitter, ironic way. Here's the probably funniest sentence in the novel (other than the one I used in the epigraph):
"Here is the solution to the American drug problem suggested a couple of years back by the wife of our President: 'Just say no.'"Four stars.
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